David Hume on Ancient Revolutions
By Dan Klein
The longest essay in the modern edition of David Hume’s Essays is “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” first published in 1752. The essay aims to discomfort those who lionize the ancients of Greece and Rome, by arguing, in effect, that neither had succeeded in establishing a political order that truly achieved what we today would call the rule of law. That is a mark of “every wise, just, and mild government” (382). The moderns have succeeded better, somehow.
The establishment of the rule of law in an extensive territory would bring prosperity, and prosperity would be reflected in populousness. Thus, Hume uses populousness to assess the ancient world. He argues that ancient Greece and Rome were much less populous than many like to think, and, thus, less prosperous, and less glorious.
Hume proceeds through a number of major aspects of the empirical question of populousness, highlighting the violence, capriciousness, and brutality of ancient society. The first is slavery. He explains why it is wholly detrimental to populousness, and, indeed, this section of the essay (pp. 383-397) is nothing short of an excoriation of slavery.
Next, Hume writes about infanticide and of the “great” families, which he presents as a sort of cult (398), with practices by no means conducive to the raising up of large families.
Next he turns to the “political customs” (400) and “political maxims and institutions” (404), treating a number of facets, including war and revolution. These too, he says, should make us skeptical about claims of ancient prosperity and populousness. About ancient revolutions, Hume writes:
In ancient history, we may always observe, where one party prevailed, whether the nobles or people (for I can observe no difference in this respect) that they immediately butchered all of the opposite party who fell into their hands, and banished such as had been so fortunate as to escape their fury. No form of process, no law, no trial, no pardon. A fourth, a third, perhaps near half of the city was slaughtered, or expelled, every revolution; and the exiles always joined foreign enemies, and did all the mischief possible to their fellow-citizens; till fortune put it in their power to take full revenge by a new revolution. And as these were frequent in such violent governments, the disorder, diffidence, jealousy, enmity, which must prevail, are not easy for us to imagine in this age of the world.
There are only two revolutions I can recollect in ancient history, which passed without great severity, and great effusion of blood in massacres and assassinations, namely, the restoration of the Athenian Democracy by Thrasybulus, and the subduing of the Roman republic by Cæsar. We learn from ancient history, that Thrasybulus passed a general amnesty for all past offences; and first introduced that word, as well as practice, into Greece. It appears, however, from many orations of Lysias, that the chief, and even some of the subaltern offenders, in the preceding tyranny, were tried, and capitally punished. And as to Cæsar’s clemency, though much celebrated, it would not gain great applause in the present age. He butchered, for instance, all Cato’s senate, when he became master of Utica; and these, we may readily believe, were not the most worthless of the party. All those who had borne arms against that usurper, were attainted; and, by Hirtius’s law, declared incapable of all public offices.
These people were extremely fond of liberty; but seem not to have understood it very well. When the thirty tyrants [a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC] first established their dominion at Athens, they began with seizing all the sycophants and informers, who had been so troublesome during the Democracy, and putting them to death by an arbitrary sentence and execution. Every man, says Sallust and Lysias, was rejoiced at these punishments; not considering, that liberty was from that moment annihilated. (407-408)
Hume goes on to address the security of life and property and the attitudes toward and extent of commerce and trade. He throws salt on ancient accounts that have suggested great populousness, and highlights other ancient remarks suggesting otherwise.
Happiness, prosperity, and populousness depend on the rule of law. Let us hope that it will be there for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to enjoy.